Three thoughts as Nashville SC fall short in the Leagues Cup Final

Nashville SC fell excruciatingly short of glory, as Inter Miami defeated the Boys in Gold in the 11th round of penalty kicks. 

The Coyotes answered Lionel Messi’s golazo with a score of their own forcing the Leagues Cup Final into penalty kicks. After cycling through all ten outfielders, the penalty kick shootout fell to the goalkeepers. Drake Callendar buried his attempt and then saved Elliott Panicco’s shot to send his Inter Miami teammates into jubilation. 

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You can’t lose a soccer match by a margin any closer to that. For many across the state, it will certainly invoke memories of Mike Jones’ tackle of Kevin Dyson on the one-yard line in Super Bowl XXXIV. 

Here are my thoughts on the match.

The hare beat the tortoise 

With Inter Miami capturing the Leagues Cup title, it has beaten Nashville SC in the race for the first trophy in club history. In this three-and-half-year contest between the 2020 MLS Expansion siblings, Miami proved that, in real life, sometimes the hare beats the tortoise. 

These two clubs will forever be linked based on their simultaneous introduction to the league. While they may have begun at the starting line together, the clubs quickly took divergent paths.

Nashville found immediate success by mainly focusing on domestic transfers with MLS experience. It wasn’t a flashy approach, but it gave the Boys in Gold a consistent core of MLS veterans that could be relied upon on Day 1.

The plan paid out early dividends. NSC qualified for the playoffs in each of their first three seasons. Since then, Nashville has continued with its slow-and-steady roster-building approach as it sprinkled in new pieces as it sought to raise its overall level of play. In the 2020 playoffs, Nashville took an early lead in the race toward silverware over Inter Miami as the Coyotes smashed the Herons by a 3-0 score line. At that time, Nashville’s less flashy and more methodical modus operandi appeared to be superior. 

On the other hand, Inter Miami began with a flash that quickly sizzled. A whirlwind of rumors in 2019 connected Miami with stars like Lionel Messi, James Rodriguez, Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezman, and Edison Cavanni. It was clear from Day 1 the profile that David Beckham and Jorge Mas were targeting.

Instead, Miami was left with an uninterested Blaise Matuidi and an out-of-shape Gonzalo Higuaín. They had their European stars, but a pair not fit for making an outsized impact in MLS. Insult added to injury when MLS slapped Miami with an unprecedented fine and penalties for underreporting payroll.

The hare, Inter Miami, tired out quickly and failed to make the playoffs in 2021. Nashville’s slow-and-steady approach looked much more likely for the 2020 expansion siblings to win the race to a first-ever trophy. 

Fables teach valuable life lessons. However, life is not fair. It does not always reward the virtuous. Even then, virtue itself, as it comes to MLS roster building, is not quite as black and white as a children’s story. 

With the rocket fuel provided by Lionel Messi and friends, Inter Miami caught up to the pack and sprinted past all of MLS and Liga MX in just one month. 

It took 11 rounds of penalty kicks, but the hare won the race in a photo finish. 

The defensive game plan worked

If a genie granted Gary Smith a chance to go back in time and change his game plan against Inter Miami, I’m pretty confident that he would not amend a single thing.

Nashville’s cohesive defensive unit did everything asked of them for 90+ minutes. Until Leonardo Campana’s double miss in the dying embers, Inter Miami collectively generated only 0.33 xG with just 5 shots fired on Elliott Panicco’s net. Nashville conceded only a single shot inside the box before stoppage time, a blocked attempt from Josef Martínez in the 50th minute. 

If you offer up that defensive performance to Gary Smith prematch, he snatches it up without a second thought. The problem, of course, is that Inter Miami just happens to have the greatest to ever play donning their kit. 

There is a reason why Messi is considered the GOAT. It is match-winning plays like this that he can convert at a much higher clip than anyone past or present.

From Nashville’s point of view, you cannot ask for any more defensively. They shepherded Messi laterally, kept numbers around him without abandoning passing outlets, and forced a low-percentage shot from outside the box. These are the principles that Gary Smith’s defensive units live by. 

Here are Smith’s own thoughts on the team’s defensive performance. 

Defensively, Nashville gave themselves a chance to win the game by limiting Messi’s impact on the match more than any Leagues Cup opponent had thus far.

Wildly successful Leagues Cup

It may not have ended with a trophy lift on the winner’s podium, but Nashville supporters should be incredibly proud of NSC’s wildly successful Leagues Cup run.

The Coyotes thrived, despite being thrown into a gauntlet that would have chewed up and spit out many lesser teams. It has been an unforgettable month of soccer with an upset win on the road against Supporters’ Shield-leading FC Cincinnati, a dismantling of ten-man Minnesota, a pair of stunning victories against two of the gigantes of Mexico, and going blow-for-blow for 11 rounds against the GOAT in the Leagues Cup Final. 

Beyond the results itself, this one-month run through Leagues Cup has provided a lot of other boosts both on and off the pitch. 

For starters, Nashville has definitively found a star striker to pair with Hany Mukhtar. It may have taken a few years and as many misses, but Sam Surridge looks the part of a perennial 15+ goal striker that can play Robin to Mukhtar’s Batman. The Coyotes’ new number 9 finished the tournament with three goals, two assists, and two converted penalty kicks. He accomplished all of this in just 230 minutes. It is an absurd goal-contribution rate from the Englishman. 

The other on-field benefit from the Leagues Cup run is that Nashville managed to right the ship back on course while penetrating deeper into a cup run than ever before. Prior to the Leagues Cup break, Nashville’s season was floundering. After going undefeated in a club-record ten-straight matches, the Boys in Gold lost five of their last six contests. Dreams of a Supporters’ Shield race all but vanished following a 3-1 debacle in Cincinnati that witnessed both Fafà Picault and Taylor Washington shown red. 

Nashville will return to MLS action next week in 6th place in the Eastern Conference with just 5 points separating them from second-place New England. With a star striker now integrated into the starting XI, the Coyotes can build on its Leagues Cup momentum as they enter the stretch run of the regular season. They will be aiming for, at minimum, a top-four finish to ensure home-field advantage to start the MLS Cup Playoffs. 

Off the field, NSC’s Leagues Cup run goes down as wildly successful as well. Appearing in a cup final, against Lionel Messi nonetheless, created a level of buzz around this team that simply cannot be replicated. 

If there was any lingering doubt, the city of Nashville is truly beginning to embrace this team. 

Bonus thought 

Below, Steve Cavendish, Editor of the Nashville Banner, posits a great philosophical question about post-title celebrations in Nashville. 

Inter Miami definitely strikes me as the type of team that is heading straight for the rooftop of FGL House. Whereas had Nashville won, Alex Muyl is walking the lads straight to Santa’s Pub.

The question also got me thinking. That the Leagues Cup winner’s podium was not on top of a Broadway party barge is a real co-marketing miss. 

Author: Chris IveyChris is a senior writer covering Nashville SC. His writings focus on the team at large and often navigate the complexity of roster building around the myriad of MLS rules. Outside of Broadway Sports Media, Chris resides in Knoxville and is a licensed attorney. Beyond NSC, he is always willing to discuss Tennessee football and basketball, Coventry City, and USMNT. Follow Chris on Twitter

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